Victoria Advocate: Calhoun County delay tactics show sunshine laws need more teeth

Victoria Advocate Editorial Board
Originally published Nov. 30, 2013

Calhoun County’s fight to keep public information away from the public is revealing in many ways.

First, we’re reminded yet again that government needs to be watched. These county commissioners and the Calhoun County district attorney aren’t bad people by nature, but many public officials have an alarming tendency to forget they serve the public.

Next, the Texas Open Meetings Act and Public Information Act need to be zealously guarded and enhanced. Only because of these laws do Calhoun taxpayers know their elected officials entered into a secret settlement with a former employee who filed an employment discrimination suit against a county commissioner.

Finally, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas defends the public’s right to know better than any other organization in the state. In this case, the foundation consulted with the Victoria Advocate about the issue and wrote a letter to the Texas attorney general in support of the newspaper’s challenge to the secret settlement.

The battle for this patently open record has been waged for six months. County commissioners took the ridiculous position that, even though they were sued and settled the case, they did not have a copy of the settlement because their insurance company paid it. Never mind that Texas law says settlements involving public bodies are public record.

Faced with an attorney general opinion against them, the county commissioners finally relented last week, voting to release the settlement. However, they said it might take the public a few more weeks to actually get to see this public record because their insurance company, Hiscox, might be on vacation. Come again? An entire insurance company on vacation?

This latest delay tactic is more of the same in this maddening process. More teeth need to be added to the Texas open meetings and records laws to penalize public officials for stalling. Ironically, some of the biggest opponents of open government every legislation session are organizations supported by taxpayer money, including the Texas Municipal League, the Texas Association of Counties and the Texas Association of School Boards. In the name of efficiency, privacy and other buzzwords, these powerful arms of the state’s cities, counties and school districts routinely look for ways to close meetings and records. For example, the municipal league filed a brief in support of Alpine City Council officials’ efforts to overturn the Texas Open Meetings Act. Fortunately, that challenge failed after an eight-year court battle.

Leading the fight for government transparency is the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which works regularly with media organizations and their industry associations. The foundation’s mission is to ensure the public’s business is conducted in public. Its hotline connects Texans with volunteer attorneys who explain open government laws.

Houston lawyer Joe Larsen, the 2010 James Madison Award winner for his work on behalf of the First Amendment, wrote the letter supporting the Advocate’s complaint against Calhoun. His work on this relatively minor skirmish in the larger war to preserve the First Amendment brings to mind the brilliant speech he made when he received the Madison Award.

Unfortunately, no transcript exists of that talk, but Larsen summarized it at our request for this editorial:

“I have always felt that open government is primarily a conservative ideal. That is why it is always surprising to me, when I speak in conservative counties, that I see a not-infrequent predilection to secrecy among governmental officials. As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify.’ He was talking about the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, but the same theme applies to our government. And as written in the Gospel according to John chapter 8, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’ With regard to our government, the way to get the truth and to live free is through Texas Public Information Act. It is a cornerstone of our democratic form of government.”

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate’s editorial board.